Ancient feces reveal how 'marsh diet' left Bronze Age Fen folk infected with parasites

Ancient feces reveal how 'marsh diet' left Bronze Age Fen folk infected with parasites
Microscopic eggs of fish tapeworm (left), giant kidney worm (centre), and Echinostoma worm (right) from the Must Farm excavation. Black scale bar represents 20 micrometres. Credit: Marissa Ledger

New research published today in the journal Parasitology shows how the prehistoric inhabitants of a settlement in the freshwater marshes of eastern England were infected by intestinal worms caught from foraging for food in the lakes and waterways around their homes.

The Bronze Age settlement at Must Farm, located near what is now the fenland city of Peterborough, consisted of wooden houses built on stilts above the water. Wooden causeways connected islands in the marsh, and dugout canoes were used to travel along water channels.

The village burnt down in a catastrophic fire around 3,000 years ago, with artefacts from the houses preserved in mud below the waterline, including food, cloth, and jewellery. The site has been called "Britain's Pompeii".

Also preserved in the surrounding mud were waterlogged "coprolites"—pieces of human faeces—that have now been collected and analysed by archaeologists at the University of Cambridge. They used microscopy techniques to detect ancient parasite eggs within the faeces and surrounding sediment.

Very little is known about the intestinal diseases of Bronze Age Britain. The one previous study, of a farming village in Somerset, found evidence of roundworm and whipworm: parasites spread through contamination of food by human faeces.

The ancient excrement of the Anglian marshes tells a different story. "We have found the earliest evidence for fish tapeworm, Echinostoma worm, and giant kidney worm in Britain," said study lead author Dr. Piers Mitchell of Cambridge's Department of Archaeology.

Ancient feces reveal how 'marsh diet' left Bronze Age Fen folk infected with parasites
Excavation of the Must Farm pile-dwelling settlement, showing the main body of the collapsed settlement in its river silt matrix. Credit: D. Webb, Cambridge Archaeological Unit

"These parasites are spread by eating raw aquatic animals such as fish, amphibians and molluscs. Living over slow-moving water may have protected the inhabitants from some parasites, but put them at risk of others if they ate fish or frogs."

Disposal of human and animal waste into the water around the settlement likely prevented direct faecal pollution of the fenlanders' food, and so prevented infection from roundworm—the eggs of which have been found at Bronze Age sites across Europe.

However, water in the fens would have been quite stagnant, due in part to thick reed beds, leaving waste accumulating in the surrounding channels. Researchers say this likely provided fertile ground for other parasites to infect local wildlife, which—if eaten raw or poorly cooked—then spread to village residents.

"The dumping of excrement into the freshwater channel in which the settlement was built, and consumption of aquatic organisms from the surrounding area, created an ideal nexus for infection with various species of intestinal parasite," said study first author Marissa Ledger, also from Cambridge's Department of Archaeology.

Fish tapeworms can reach 10m in length, and live coiled up in the intestines. Heavy infection can lead to anaemia. Giant kidney worms can reach up to a metre in length. They gradually destroy the organ as they become larger, leading to kidney failure. Echinostoma worms are much smaller, up to 1cm in length. Heavy infection can lead to inflammation of the intestinal lining.

"As writing was only introduced to Britain centuries later with the Romans, these people were unable to record what happened to them during their lives. This research enables us for the first time to clearly understand the infectious diseases experienced by prehistoric people living in the Fens," said Ledger.

Ancient feces reveal how 'marsh diet' left Bronze Age Fen folk infected with parasites
Illustrated reconstruction of Must Farm stilt houses. Credit: V. Herring, Cambridge Archaeological Unit

The Cambridge team worked with colleagues at the University of Bristol's Organic Chemistry Unit to determine whether coprolites excavated from around the houses were human or animal. While some were human, others were from dogs.

"Both humans and dogs were infected by similar parasitic worms, which suggests the humans were sharing their food or leftovers with their dogs," said Ledger.

Other parasites that infect animals were also found at the site, including pig whipworm and Capillaria worm. It is thought that they originated from the butchery and consumption of the intestines of farmed or hunted animals, but probably did not cause humans any harm.

The researchers compared their latest data with previous studies on ancient from both the Bronze Age and Neolithic. Must Farm tallies with the trend of fewer parasite species found at Bronze Age compared with Neolithic sites.

"Our study fits with the broader pattern of a shrinking of the parasite ecosystem through time," said Mitchell. "Changes in diet, sanitation and human-animal relationships over millennia have affected rates of parasitic infection." Although he points out that infections from the fish tapeworm found at Must Farm have seen a recent resurgence due to the popularity of sushi, smoked salmon and ceviche.

"We now need to study other sites in prehistoric Britain where people lived different lifestyles, to help us understand how our ancestors' way of life affected their risk of developing infectious diseases," added Mitchell.

Explore further

Ancient feces reveal parasites in 8,000-year-old village of Çatalhöyük

More information: Marissa L. Ledger et al, Intestinal parasites at the Late Bronze Age settlement of Must Farm, in the fens of East Anglia, UK (9th century B.C.E.), Parasitology (2019). DOI: 10.1017/S0031182019001021
Journal information: Parasitology

Citation: Ancient feces reveal how 'marsh diet' left Bronze Age Fen folk infected with parasites (2019, August 15) retrieved 19 September 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Aug 15, 2019
Our ancestors were unaware of microscopic worms in those days, just as they were ignorant of such things as bacteria and viruses. The ones who survived the onslaught of infestations may have recognised the need for thorough cooking of their food, particularly if they noticed that 'roundworms' (which were bigger) were present.

Aug 16, 2019
Must Farm - Bronze Age settlement

The key is in the title
An ancient civilization
Defined to be in the Bronze Age
Producing bronze by smelting its own copper and alloying with tin and arsenic
By trading for bronze from production areas elsewhere
Bronze itself is more durable
Allowing Bronze Age civilizations to gain a technological advantage
These Bronze Age peoples
Came from that earlier age, the Chalcolithic age
For these peoples came from the Copper Age 5500 years ago
No doubt this research from the Cambridge Colleges is thoroughly researched
But there is a but
Where this but is a rapidly growing But
For these peoples are settlers, migrants
Who dealt in Copper 5500years ago
For these Iceni peoples in Cockly Clay
Also lived in marshes - of East Anglia where Cambridge lies
For all Britain's lived through the Copper Age
East Anglia in these Bronze Age days was marshland
The moral of this fishy tale
Bronze Age Britain's were well aware of parasites!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more